SU’s Urobo’s technology puts the “silver” in the bioplastics bullet

SU’s Urobo’s technology puts the “silver” in the bioplastics bullet

SU’s Urobo’s technology puts the “silver” in the bioplastics bullet


Around the world, bioplastics are regarded by some as the silver bullet against plastic pollution. But is it really? And what does the future hold for this industry?


Stellenbosch University (SU) students, Wessel Myburgh, a co-tutelage PhD candidate, and Dominique Rocher, might have the answer for waste management companies around the globe who battle with problems caused by the rise in bioplastic waste – which currently mostly ends up in landfills or being incinerated.


As part of Wessel’s PhD, he is developing a technology that uses microbial enzymes to break down certain types of plastics – especially bioplastics – and potentially recycle them to valuable fuels and chemicals. In developing this solution, Wessel and Dominique, are working with Stellenbosch University’s Innovus division to establish or spinout a company – which they call Urobo Biotech - that would become the vehicle to commercialise this new technology.  


But what exactly are bioplastics, and what are the challenges the world faces in this regard?


Wessel defined bioplastics as any plastic that is either biobased (produced using renewable biomass sources), biodegradable (breaks down under certain defined environmental or industrial conditions) or has both of these properties. They are thus a whole family of materials with a wide range of properties and applications. Bioplastics are mostly used in the packaging industry especially for single-use plastic items, which is part of the reason why there are some serious concerns about their end-of-life options. However, their applications are also expanding into more diverse industries, causing further alarm.


Currently, Europe, South-East Asia and the United States are producing more and more bioplastics due to the countries’ legislative landscape that dictates the use of more environmentally friendly materials. Furthermore, across the globe, there is also mounting pressure on governments to commit to the United Nations 2050 net zero goals and become overall more sustainable. Consumer demand for more sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics is also a strong driving force in bioplastic market growth.


Wessel says, in Europe, most bioplastics are earmarked to go to the organic waste management systems where they also recycle food and organic waste to produce energy and CO2 in the form of biogas. “As we’ve been working with some of these companies on other projects, they told us that their facilities are not designed to handle this huge influx of bioplastic waste, which could be as much as 4 000 ton per year for a medium-sized facility in Italy – something that will exponentially increase over the next decade. And as bioplastic production, use and waste generation increases, so too will the associated problems escalate.”


“These companies are forced to take the bioplastic products from the waste before they start their recycling processes, but then they still have to do something with it.” Wessel says these companies must now incur significant costs to send the bioplastic waste to landfill or incineration plants which is a massive problem for them as they run on low profit margins due to the relatively low value of the products they produce from recycling.”


“Using our enzymes to break down bioplastics, the recycling process can function better and enable them to produce more of the products that they already generate, such as methane and CO2, which they sell for energy generation and for carbonated drinks and medical applications. Our technology not only enables them to produce more of these products, but also solves the problem of bioplastic contamination of their feedstock.” said Wessel.


Wessel says there are plenty of concerns about the future influx of bioplastics among other players in the market because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between normal plastics and bioplastics. For the thriving South African PET recycling sector, this is particularly worrying.


“Our enzyme is specific for bioplastics, but our studies have also indicated that it is not influencing normal plastics in terms of their quality or characteristics. “As a precursor to the usual plastic recycling process, we can start our enzymatic process, break down the bioplastics to their original monomers (that from which they are made) and the ordinary plastic such as PET can then be collected and taken out of the enzymatic process to be sent into usual recycling. The bioplastic monomers on the other hand can be extracted, purified, and sold as fine chemicals or fuels.


International partnership


Over the past four years, the Urobo team made huge strides in developing this technology and recently received funding to work together with two large companies in Italy to further develop the technology and test it at one or more of the facilities over there.


Being a Co-tutelage PhD student with SU and the University of Padova (UniPD), Italy’s second-oldest university (established in 1222), Wessel spent six months close to Venice where he was exposed to organic waste recycling companies dealing with the problem of bioplastic waste. This research and study opportunity flows from an almost twenty-year long relationship and collaboration with UniPD that was started by Prof. Emile Van Zyl and continued by Prof. Marinda Viljoen-Bloom – both SU supervisors of Wessel’s PhD. “Through our partnership with the University of Padova we can benefit from their hands-on experience and a direct line to some potential clients who have these real-world problems that need to be solved.”


This strong relationship is continuing through Dominique’s at UniPD in co-tutelage with SU and is expanding on the research conducted by Wessel. “My Co-tutelage PhD allows me to build upon Wessel's research and delve deeper into the challenges surrounding bioplastics. Collaborating with esteemed institutions like the University of Padova provides us with invaluable insights and connections, enabling us to approach real-world problems from a multidimensional perspective. ” The team’s network is also expanding to other European Universities through the Arqus Alliance which recently awarded Dominique’s PhD at UniPD with a very prestigious scholarship program. “Being a recipient of the Arqus Talent Scholarship Fund within the Arqus European University Alliance has broadened our horizons immensely. Partnering with universities across Europe, including UniPD, University of Graz, and the University of Leipzig, has empowered us to synergize knowledge and share innovative solutions on a global scale. This alliance not only enriches our research but also fuels our commitment to tackling the complex challenges posed by bioplastics."


Wessel and Dominique’s relationship with the University of Padova ensured that his co-study leader, Prof. Lorenzo Favaro, could not only contribute to the technology development but also give Urobo a European perspective of the problems surrounding bioplastics and how Urobo’s technologies can be employed to greatest effect. This gives Urobo a valuable foot in the door of the European market.


Innovus and LaunchLab


Very early in the research project, Wessel’s first experiments showed much better results than they had anticipated and – as this showed great potential for commercialization – the team of Innovus was contacted to help establish and protect their intellectual property (IP). At this stage, Dominique was still busy with her MSc in Japan and started to build connections with potential partners there – Japan also has a thriving bioplastics market with a keen interest in new technologies to make the industry more sustainable.


"Our engagement with the Japanese market has been inspiring. Japan's deep interest in advancing sustainability aligns perfectly with our mission. Establishing connections with potential partners in Japan has opened doors to collaborative efforts that could redefine sustainability in the bioplastics industry. The exchange of ideas and potential support from the Japanese market significantly strengthens our resolve to drive positive change"


The relationship with Innovus developed further to where they are now assisted by Technology Transfer Director, Ravini Moodley and TT officer, Litha Tywakadi. Together with Brandon Paschal, who heads up the LaunchLab, the Urobo business plan is taking shape and they have started the incubation processes to spinout Urobo in the near future. “We are very excited to continue our work with the Innovus team so that they can help us to transform ourselves from being hardened scientists to having more of a business mindset.”


Wessel says SU owns the majority share in the Intellectual Property (IP) or patent behind the technology, with the University of Padova holding the rest. The founding researchers are the majority shareholders in Urobo with USE (SU’s group of companies) holding the rest of the shares.


“The Innovus TTO is happy to be involved with this technology which helps to improve environmental outcomes across the globe. We are committed to supporting Urobo in the exciting ventures and adventures it has lined up,” says Ravini.


What’s in the name?


While searching for a name for their company, Wessel stumbled on the ancient symbol of Ouroboros, a mythical snake or dragon eating its own tail. “This symbol is one of eternal cyclic renewal, which is what we strive to develop for bioplastics,” said Wessel. And so, the name Urobo Biotech was born. “We want to develop a system and technology to change the bioplastic industry to a fully circular economy so that the material is no longer a problem for waste management companies but rather a valuable resource to produce fuels and chemicals that are in high demand.”


The future


“Very few bioplastics break down in salt water or other natural environments” warns Wessel. In the same way bioplastic production and use will grow exponentially, so too will the problems experienced with these materials. “If we do not plan for this waste, they will no longer be part of the solution but rather intensify the problems we already face.”


“Bioplastics might have the potential to make a huge difference to the plastic pollution crisis, but for this to happen, we need sustainable and proper waste management practices in place with a circular perspective.” said Wessel. Adding that it is their aim to ensure that when the bioplastic explosion happens soon, they will be ready with a product that will ensure it can be managed and recycled without harm to our precious environment.